The long-simmering crisis of credibility of news media houses has led to the hopeful emergence of several small but fiercely independent online portals, fact-checking websites and investigative media houses in India. Today, the only medium that is not significantly controlled by the Government is the online digital medium.
The mainstream media is intertwined, often covertly, with the government. A Cobrapost sting operation provided proof to each one of us of the extent to which the nexus between mainstream media (with a few exceptions) and the government or major industrial houses has strengthened over the last decade.
This is not to say that the online space is pristine and free from unwanted influences. This space is now significantly polluted by intemperate, uncivilised, extreme 'trolling' featuring vile language, open lies and open or dog-whistle threats of violence aimed to intimidate the targets, mostly executed by persons on the payroll of major political parties.
While the ostensible reason for the introduction of the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021is to clean up the social media space, many believe that the intention is more sinister.
These rules may enable the government to crack down on independent media houses whose only presence is on social media and the web (i.e., not on TV or in print media), who have so far broadcast moderate views without fear or favour, because they take no ads and are entirely voluntary subscription-funded. Such media houses hold up a mirror to civil society, something which immensely troubles those who cannot bear to look themselves in the eye.
The above-referred Rules for 'significant intermediaries' are intended to control Google, Facebook and most importantly, Whatsapp. These rules are yet to be declared. Experts say that we can expect more fireworks between the Government and these 'significant intermediaries' in around May-June 2021. At that time, it would be instructive to read up on recent happenings in Australia.
These Rules grant absolute power to the Government to chase anyone’s voice online. These powers, many fear, will be used selectively like in the Koregaon Bhima case and in the cases of Disha Ravi and Navdeep Kaur - which are barely disguised abductions by police without serious cause – these cases are mainly intended to chill other voices.
These Rules will make selective treatment of anti-government activists easier, because the powers that be can cite the new Ordinances, Acts, Sections and Rules whose scope hasn’t been judicially examined as fig leafs to justify such abductions by investigative agencies masquerading as arrests because the executive will be armed with the power to call hearings on complaints of violation of the Code of Ethics.
Never before has the need for independent, honest voices and sources of information been so dire. We are – as a society – inundated with a flood of unrelenting, unreliable information (“fake news”), mixed with the truth. Since they are not pure fake news, but there is a dollop of truth mixed, it becomes difficult to discern what is fake and what is not. The times we live in, therefore, call upon each one of us to become more discerning, more sceptical, and more willing to suspend judgment, while forming one’s opinions.
Earlier, we would believe a report if it was printed under a well-trusted masthead, or more than one 'reliable' source reported the same thing. That trust has now disappeared, and depending on multiple sources no longer is a guarantee of authenticity. It has now become imperative for each one of us to learn to disbelieve the majority and look for honest voices and reports from specific incorruptible sources to filter out the noise generated by evening television debates. Did we even realise when and how the 9 PM news bulletins gave way to 9 PM cacophonic debates on almost all channels? Earlier many of us disbelieved Doordarshan news because it was Government controlled. Now we disbelieve the private channels as well, for serving corporate and political masters, whether overtly or otherwise.
India today sorely misses the open and questioning journalism that we took for granted till just a decade ago. Unfortunately, the mainstream news media is experiencing its own crisis. They are in a full-blown financial crisis. 24x7 News channels are also dependent on Government spokespersons for running their so-called ‘debates’ at primetime every day. They are also up against a Government of the kind that George Orwell predicted in his book, 1984 – a Big Brother that is implacable and has technology and people to monitor all TV channels, print and online media those who write, speak or even think against them – thought police, as it were. The economics of modern media houses shows that ad revenues are their predominant form of sustenance. Today, advertisers do not blink when they demand their pound of flesh – in the form of toothless journalism where,to borrow a sentence from LK Advani, anchors "crawl when they are asked to bend". The media in turn hide their emptiness with noise – the noise that ‘debates’ have degenerated into, where truth and independence are not even panellists or guests.
Chelameswar, J. eloquently said in his concurring but separate judgment in a recent landmark 9-Judge Constitution Bench decision on the Right to Privacy, the silences of the Constitution, too, are equally important to understand the Constitution. So also, we must be mindful of what is not said as much as focusing on what is said. We must be aware that a major portion of what is called the mainstream media is controlled through direct or indirect ownership or other kinds of influence (like dangling ad revenues) by a few large corporations and political parties and are little better than ongoing propaganda to serve their nefarious purposes. That is the reason that independent media must survive and keep the flag of independent thinking high now, more than ever.
Rajesh is a qualified CA & CWA. He has served as a Director of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a Director of a large urban co-operative bank and Dean of a B-School over the years. He has taught Finance for over 20 years & trained participants from several Companies and B-Schools. He is an educator and a learner (he believes both are inextricably intertwined), and a knowledge product developer. Law Gyani, which he has founded to help Law Students with their exam preparations, and to understand nuances of the law.
Law Gyani’s mission is to make available better, easier-to-use and richer content to the legal community. Our first offering is a Q&A product, aimed at helping LL.B. students to appear for their examinations. While we have begun with answering questions from the last 10 years’ question papers of the Mumbai University’s 3-Year LL.B. course, Law Gyani is committed to expanding the content to cover Q&A on all law papers of most Universities in India.